36 Chambers – The Legendary Journeys: Execution to the max!

November 30, 2006

Nuclear Terrorism

Filed under: Terrorism — Kevin Feasel @ 4:38 pm

So now that I have covered the CB and R portions, it is time to handle N. Once again, I’m getting a lot of my information from the International Counter-Terrorism Institute’s 2003 report, so I think it’s definitely a worthwhile read.

So, let’s ask the same questions again of nuclear terrorism plans: what are the threat vectors? how potent would such a weapon be? and how difficult would it be to develop such a weapon?

The answer to the threat vector question is: air, land, or sea. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages. An air attack would require a plane and pilot capable of transporting a nuclear device to get into range. Such a plane, however, may be shot down if the pilot makes it too obvious that there is something amiss, and shooting down the device means that the plan fails entirely, as nuclear devices are delicate things which require a precise set of actions to occur in order to detonate—meaning that it would not detonate upon impact with the surface, as some conventional munitions might. An airborne attack would allow an EMP bomb to be used, though such a device is probably beyond the capabilities of any regimes which would hand over nuclear devices to terrorists, either now or in the near future. A ground attack has the advantage of being the scariest-looking and more difficult to detect than an aerial blast, but the destruction would be more limited than an air attack, and one would hope that there are security measures in place at big gatherings and major centers which would detect a nuclear device. Finally, a sea attack might be the easiest to pull off, though the effects of this would be fairly limited.

To further illustrate what a nuclear device would likely do, I give you the Federation of American Scientists’ Nuclear Weapon Effects Calculator.  A 10-kiloton device (which appears to be a reasonable estimate) could destroy a few square blocks and damage several more in a ground attack.  The good news is that this follows a cubic growth pattern, so that a 1-megaton device would not, in fact, destroy 100 times as much as a 10-kiloton device.  The other good news is that getting a 1-megaton device would be extremely difficult for countries, and almost impossible for terrorist groups.  The bad news, though, is that if such a terrorist group gets this sized device, a 1-megaton device would effectively destroy Chicago.

So, we have a rough idea of the destructive power of such a device, as well as the avenues through which terrorist groups could potentially detonate such a device.  Now let’s talk about how to develop such a device.  The good news for us is that it would be impossible for a terrorist group to, on its own, develop a nuclear device.  They would need enough fissionable nuclear material, a great deal of equipment, processing facilities, and nuclear scientists.  Countries cannot do this on the sly, so there is no chance that a terrorist organization could set everything up without anybody getting word or a spy satellite noticing an odd processing facility in the Sudan.  So in short, for a terrorist attack involving a nuclear device, there must be a state sponsor handing such a device over.  This would result in assured retaliation and the complete destruction of any country which has ties to the terrorist group plotting the attack.

How about, instead, the possibility that a terrorist organization purchases or steals a nuclear device?  As it stands, nuclear devices are the most precious military instruments of the countries which own them.  As such, these are usually well-guarded—even in Russia and Pakistan.  Regarding purchasing the devices, this is slightly more possible, but I still consider it extremely unlikely, as no country with nukes at present (I’m not including North Korea for this) would want to get tied back to a nuclear terrorist attack, as this would also presumably lead to a nuclear retaliation.  So for right now, there is no threat.  This, however, will change soon.  North Korea and Iran are both developing nuclear devices, and there is a fear that if Iran gets nuclear weapons, this will lead countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt to also try to get such weapons.  In this case, the number of countries with direct ties to terrorist organizations jumps and the chances of some government deciding to take a risk also goes up.  Chemical, Biological, and Radiological terrorism we can effectively write off due to the fact that it either won’t work or won’t be worth it.  Unfortunately, I fear that we cannot do the same for nuclear terrorism.  The technical aspects of such a device—how to get it into the US, where to attack, the chances of foiling—show that it would still be difficult to accomplish, and the retaliatory effect would be devastating, but this is the one which could actually happen.

Risk – Zero (now); Medium to High (within several years).  Terrorist groups don’t have nuclear devices at present (thankfully).  If Iran gets a working nuclear device, the risk immediately jumps to medium.  If North Korea is able to get working devices, I would put the risk at Low-Medium, as Kim Jong-Il is crazy, but he’s not a millenarian.  But if Iran does develop such a nuclear capability, there will be an Arab world scramble for the devices, and that will put the risk up to High.
Retaliation Against Government Factor – Very High.  The only potential case in which nuclear retaliation would not occur is if other countries—such as Israel—were “held hostage.”  However, the US has enough nuclear firepower to obliterate a country and even if Iran does develop nuclear devices, it would not be able to develop enough to withstand a retaliatory strike and still have some in reserve.  This isn’t a Cold War scenario; we’re talking about countries with upwards of a half-dozen or so.  A half-dozen can do a great deal of damage, but if Iran were to be behind a nuclear attack on an American city, there would not be an Iran the next day.
Likelihood of Failure – Medium.  Nuclear devices are complex things, which means a mechanical failure has to be taken into account.  In addition, such an attack can be foiled through Geiger counters and other devices which detect radioactive materials.  A functional nuclear bomb would have difficulty getting through a port (either air or sea) without detection, so a ground attack would almost definitely have to come up through the southern border.  Then, it becomes a matter of whether security personnel at the attack site have the equipment and training to detect such a device.
Media Factor – Extremely High.  A nuclear attack is the ultimate attack (at least at present), and there would be tremendous, long-term coverage of the event.

November 29, 2006

A Conversation—With Pictures!

Filed under: Deutschland — Kevin Feasel @ 10:54 am

Here are snippets of a conversation with a friend of mine at the Weinachtsmarkt last night. I have thrown in pictures so that Tony doesn’t get bored, and so he can understand. Snippets have been added to make me look funnier (shaddup), but roughly 90% of it is actual conversation, at least as I recall it. All of the pictures are under the fold, so click on to see more.

(more…)

November 28, 2006

Radiological Weapons—The Dirty Bomb

Filed under: Terrorism — Kevin Feasel @ 1:32 pm

A dirty bomb looks, on the face of things, to be a nightmarish scenario for counterterrorist activity.  It is extremely easy to put together, in that it requires little more than conventional explosives and radioactive material—which can be stolen from any one of 21,000 companies…in the US alone—and could require major cleanup costs.  Throw in radiation poisoning, cancer, and the whole host of bad things which can happen with radioactive materials and you have a novel right there.   But, because I am not writing a novel, let us take a look at the radiological dispersal device (RDD).   Once again, we must focus on the threat vector, costs and benefits, and chances of success.

The dangerous part about the dirty bomb is that the chances for success are very high.  They are significantly higher than for chemical and biological weapons.  Meanwhile, although an RDD attack is not as likely to succeed as a nuclear device would be, it has the advantage of being extremely inexpensive.  Media reports say that biological and chemical attacks can be done on a shoestring budget, but in reality, it can take hundreds of millions (to billions) of dollars and top-level scientific know-how to get a theoretically-functioning attack.  Meanwhile, an RDD only costs as much as the bomb and the price of stealing radioactive materials.  This makes it, by far, the cheapest and most cost-effective of the CBNR family.  On these merits, it would be a great idea to devote resources mainly toward the R and away from CB (with N not mentioned yet, as I will get to that tomorrow).  But we aren’t quite done yet…  We still have to talk about the benefits that such a device would bring to a terrorist organization.

And what are these benefits?  Well, according to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, practically none.  In their fact sheet concerning RDDs, the NRC states that the likely effect will not be any more powerful than the conventional explosives in the device.  In fact, they state, “It is extremely unlikely that anyone who survives the explosion will become sick from radiation.”  Furthermore, although decontamination is a potentially very expensive process, it can be done.  And emergency responders have equipment which can detect radioactive material, so it would become quickly known whether this was an RDD attack, so that decontamination and sealing off the premises could be handled very quickly, even further reducing the impact of the radioactive material.

In addition, there are two problems concerning the use of radioactive materials.  First of all, I noted the 21,000+ companies in the US (as cited in the fact sheet), but the problem for any would-be terrorist is that most of these companies use materials which would not be useful in a dirty bomb.  The example they give is that, even though a hospital does have a fair amount of radioactive material (in X-Ray machines, for example), it would not be powerful enough to cause any additional problems on top of the explosion.  So even if a terrorist organization steals Cesium-137 or Plutonium-238 from a nuclear facility in a foreign country and smuggles it through the porous southern border and sets up an attack, the end effect is no better than if they just scrapped the radioactive material part entirely.

Now, one benefit that terrorist organizations would have is that such an attack can protect their state benefactors.   An RDD could be assembled without government assistance—which stands totally in contrast to nuclear devices and almost totally in biological and chemical—so the opportunities for a nuclear retaliation become slimmer.  A terrorist-supporting state with reserves of spent plutonium—say, Iran—could conceivably assist in a radiological attack with less fear of consequence than if a nuclear device were to go off.

So, once more, the breakdown:
Risk – Medium.  A dirty bomb is the most likely of CBNR attacks at the present time.  There have not been any such attacks recorded, but there have been some foiled plots, and unlike biological weapons, it is actually possible to turn this kind of attack into reality.  But once again, I must re-state that I rank the potential for damage as Low.
Retaliation Against Government Factor – Low.  It would be difficult to pin this back to an individual goverment, given that a terrorist organization could do it without state support.
Likelihood of Failure – Very Low.  Procuring radioactive materials suitable for such a device may be difficult, and Geiger counters could detect the radioactive material if they attempt to come in through air or sea lanes, but this is by far the most difficult part.  The mechanics of the device are rather simple, and there are a lot of terrorist bomb-makers, so this is no more complex for them than filling a bomb with nails or shrapnel.
Media Factor – High.  The first few hours will be confusion and panic, but that should settle down somewhat after a couple of days.  The problem is that most reporters and journalists don’t have a clue about much of anything, so they’ll publish some potentially harmful things and might work to incite panic far better than a well-informed media corps.

November 27, 2006

Radiological Terrorism: Too Many Questions Left

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Feasel @ 3:18 pm

I wanted to writ e up a post on radiological terrorism today, but as I was scratching things down during the International Monetary Economics tutorial (official motto: “It’s the same material as the lecture, but boring!”), I kept coming up with more and more questions. I want to put a bit of research into these questions, so I hope I will be able to write it up tomorrow.

In the meantime, I am going to try to get some pictures of the Freiburg Weinachtsmarkt (Christmas Market, for those who seriously cannot look it up. I mean, come on, it’s not that difficult.)

November 26, 2006

The Potency Of Chemical Terrorism

Filed under: Terrorism — Kevin Feasel @ 9:21 am

Over the past week, I have taken a thorough look at the different Category A bioterror threats and found all of them to be wanting in seriousness and less effective than commonly believed. Today, I am going to take a look at chemical terrorism. A fair amount of information will come from the International Counter-Terrorism Institute’s 2003 report on CBNR weapons.

Just like biological weapons, we have to understand three things to conduct any form of appropriate cost-benefit analysis: threat vectors; range of potency of the weapon (obviously also thinking about what would cause the attack to be more or less effective than expected); and the technological know-how, scientific equipment, and financial resources necessary to manufacture an appropriate weapon.

According to the ICT article linked above, chemical weapons have three primary threat vectors: gas/vapor, liquid/aerosol, and dry solid. In addition to the form, there are four classes of chemical weapons: lung-damaging “choking” agents, “blood agents” which interfere with cellular respiration, agents which cause chemical burns (“burning” agents), and nerve agents. So basically, they work through uncovered skin or unimpeded access to the respiratory system. For a large-scale terrorist attack, I would rate nerve agents as the tops, due to their deadliness in small doses. Blood agents are decent for assassination attempts, but would be terrible for a large-scale attack. Choking agents are not quite as deadly as nerve agents, though they could also be used. And finally, burning agents are very unlikely to kill people, though they will leave nasty wounds. So I would break down an attack distribution of nerve-choking-burning at roughly 60%-30%-10% in terms of which terrorists would choose, given the opportunity.

Now, let us talk about the know-how and resources necessary to pull off a successful attack. As the standard argument goes, pretty much anybody can get chemical weapons, leaving them a low-cost and high-potency option for an attack. Just set up a fake (or real) corporation dealing with common industrial materials, get a few gallons of the stuff, and off you go. This, however, is not the experience of the Aum Shinrikyo cult. Aum is, as I have pointed out, the Dr. Doom of terrorist organizations. They were staffed with top scientists, had the resources of a government, and were dedicated toward causing mass destruction. The culmination of their efforts was the Tokyo subway sarin attack. The end result of this was 12 deaths and approximately 1300 injuries (as well as roughly 3700 people who were treated at hospitals but did not have any physical injury). This was after five years of planning and millions of dollars in resources (as well as the aforementioned scientific expertise). So, Aum proved that a non-state organization could potentially have the resources and knowledge to pull off a chemical attack, but despite the fact that they attacked during rush hour and were trying to maximize the death count, they still only managed to kill 12—and some of these deaths were because the trains kept going even after cases of injuries were being made known.

Now, once again I would like to use incidents of terrorist attacks as a proxy for their likelihood. According to the MIPT Terrorism Knowledge Database, there were 51 chemical weapon attacks since 1968. Of those, I am interested primarily in everything after the Aum sarin attack, leaving 27, including 22 after September 11th. Let us take a look at this, with a year-by-year breakdown, eliminating any cases dealing with assassination attempts or directly applied lethal poison attacks (such as this case of a suspected informer in Kashmir) because they could not be reproduced on a large scale.

2005 – Food poisoning in Iraq (0 deaths, 3 injuries)
2004 – Ricin found in a letter to Bill Frist (0, 0)
2003 – Poisoned bottled water in Italy (0, 50); Ricin letter to be sent to the White House (0, 0); Ricin letter to be sent to the Department of Transportation (0, 0); 8 cases of Adamsite [a non-lethal irritant used in rocket fuel and to kill rats] in letters in Belgium (0, 0); cyanide in New Zealand letters (0, 0); FARC attack in Colombia (0, 4)
2002 – Greece: “A homemade device, made up of six gas canisters, caused heavy damage to the Eurobank branch at 158 Ethnikis Antistaseos St. No further information is provided.” (0?, 0?); FARC poisons water supply (?, ?); cyanide letter sent to US Embassy in New Zealand (0, 0)
2001 – Molotov cocktails and acid thrown at policemen in Spain (0, 2); cartridge of tear gas thrown through a window in Krgystan (0, 0); acid thrown on women in Kashmir (0, 6); acid bombs thrown at police cars in Spain (0, 2); CS gas attacks on schools in Vietnam (0, 132 in this case; estimates of 0, 500 over a two-month period)
1998 – Food posioning in Japan (4, 60); water supply poisoning in Albania (?, ?)

So, what is the important number here? 4: the number of confirmed chemical terror-related deaths since the 1995 attack. Of the 24 attacks I have listed, here is another way of breaking them down:
Mail attacks – 13 (with almost none of these cases intending to actually kill anybody, and overall 0 injuries of fatalities)
Water and food supply attacks – 5
Conventional weapons mixed with chemical weapons – 4
Other – 2 (Vietnam school attack and Krgystan tear gas attack)

Now, this list does not include foiled attacks, such as an attempt to use hydrogen cyanide (a blood agent, and therefore useless in this purpose) on the London subway or the ricin attack plans found in England. Even with this noted, however, it should be fairly plain that chemical attacks are not an extremely potent threat. They are more reasonable than the biological attacks, due to the fact that they require fewer resources and the aerosol problem does not exist for them as it does for biological attacks, but for a terrorist who wants to leave a big impression, chemical attacks just don’t seem like the best route.

Another aspect to consider is the factor of state-sponsored terrorism. Several governments have chemical weapons and could potentially hand these off to terrorists for an attack. However, if this attack were to take place in the United States, the doctrine to follow up a CBNR attack with a nuclear retaliation might act as a deterrent. The problem would be figuring out who was responsible for handing over chemical weapons to terrorist organizations, however.

One final note is to discuss very quickly what might cause such an attack to fizzle out. Chemical weapons work best in enclosed areas without purification systems. Obviously, the mustard gas attacks during World War I show that outdoor attacks can occur, but as the gas spreads, it loses its lethality. An agent in liquid form, such as sarin, faces this problem as well. Wind patterns could disrupt outdoor attacks, and it is possible that filtration systems could mitigate the deadliness of certain chemical compounds. For poisoning water supplies, the best route to go would be like the way in Italy: attack bottled water. Most cities in the US and Western Europe have excellent water purification systems, so attempting to poison the tap water supplies of those cities would fail.

Risk – Low. It is interesting to see just how few chemical attacks have taken place since September 11th, and how many of them boil down to instances where the attacker either did not intend to cause harm (such as the Ricin letters of 2003) or where they did not use a potent enough chemical compound to cause harm (Adamsite).  Chemical attacks are more likely than biological attacks, but in the western world, they still rank is rather unlikely.
Retaliation Against Government Factor – Medium.  It would be difficult to figure out who passed along the chemicals, but if a government is involved in a big chemical attack on US soil (even to the extent of Aum’s Tokyo attack), a nuclear retaliation would be likely.
Likelihood of Failure – Medium to High.  Chemical weapons have their own distribution problems and depend heavily on circumstances such as the weather.  They are also not that easy to weaponize and use in an attack in the West.  It can happen, though, especially on the weak side of things—such as the Italian bottled water poisoning example.
Media Factor – Low to High.  Cases of food poisoning would receive almost no attention.  Water supply poisoning would rank as a medium, as would poisoned letters.  The ricin bust in England was more of a medium-high, and the Aum attack was high.  Chemical weapons probably have the biggest range of deadliness, so it makes sense that the media response would be somewhat proportionate—although if that were always the case, then the anthrax letters would not have received all that much coverage…

November 25, 2006

Tomorrow: Chemical Terrorism

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Feasel @ 12:34 pm

This is a quick note to anybody who has been reading the bioterror series.  I will be continuing it with several more articles.  Tomorrow, I am going to unleash my article on chemical terrorism.  As a quick note, I will not be quite as sanguine as I was with bioterror, but what this means, you’ll have to tune in tomorrow for.

Tonight, however, I am going to see Borat with a friend.  There is a 14.2% chance that I will write some kind of follow-up.  More importantly, I am making stuffing tomorrow.  I was struggling to find the bread crumbs necessary for stuffing, but eventually did, so all is good.  There is a 48.9% chance that I will have some kind of stuffing-related follow-up.

November 24, 2006

I Cannot Take Off My Pants

Filed under: Yiddishkeit — Kevin Feasel @ 7:34 pm

This is how good Shabbat dinner was…  There wasn’t any turkey, though the chicken was, as usual, extremely good.  The only downside was that there were only five people total, including me, so I had to carry more of the conversational load than I really should.  After all, last year, we had specialization down pat:  there were three or four people whose job it was to talk, and I would eat.  This year, I threw in some “Doch”s just to remind people that I was still alive, but now many people are gone, so there will be weeks when I have to—horror of horrors!—actually speak on occasion.  This completely ruins everything, but somehow I was able to survive the ordeal…

The pants have been removed and replaced safely with pajamas.  It’s not that I put on the extra pounds tonight (though I probably ate enough to…  It was almost a legitimate Thanksgiving meal); rather, these pants have the button on the inside, which is rather difficult to undo with freshly-trimmed fingernails (trimmed _before_ Shabbat, thank-you-very-much).

Oh, and me posting on Shabbat?  I have no idea what you’re talking about…

November 23, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Feasel @ 2:59 pm

I would like to wish a Happy Thanksgiving to anybody reading.  Tony, Happy Thanksgiving back in the Great State of Ohio.  Dan, Happy Thanksgiving in the Puerto Rican holding cell.  To anybody else who reads, Happy Thanksgiving, even if you live in a filthy, heathenous, foreign land…uh, like I do…  People who randomly click on this blog because Dan once had a few pictures of fully-clothed redheads up, Happy Thanksgiving, you freaks.

The Rest Of Category A

Filed under: Science!, Terrorism — Kevin Feasel @ 2:39 pm

Over the past two days, I have covered smallpox and anthrax. I would now like to cover the rest of Category A.

There are a total of six categories and twelve total biological maladies which are listed as Category A bioterror threats, according to the CDC. Anthrax and Smallpox make up two of them. The others can be split into four categories:
- Botulism
- Bubonic Plague
- Rabbit Fever
- Viruses (Ebola, Lassa, etc.)

I shall, once again, incorporate some of Professor Bhakdi’s arguments as the basis of why I believe that there are no major bioterror threats, going one by one.

Botulism

The stuff that rich, old people inject into their foreheads to make them look more like wax dummies than wrinkled dummies also functions as a poison. Botulism works by getting into the gastro-intestinal system, and then taking a ride down the bloodstream and into the muscular nerves. So basically, you have to eat botulism-poisoned food. It can be a very dangerous substance, and recovery could take weeks to months. However, because you must ingest it, it makes for a pitiful weapon for a terrorist attack. Botulism cannot be spread from person to person, it could not possibly be released in aerosol form into a crowd, and even if an attack worked perfectly, there is no way that the casualty rate could be higher than a few dozen cases with perhaps a few deaths. In short, this is not a viable weapon for sowing terror—the threat vector is just far too limited.

Positives for terrorists: deadly; recovery takes a long time; fairly low chance of detection
Negatives for terrorists: pitiful infection rate; limited use

Bubonic/Pneumonic Plague

Now we’re talking: wipe out a third of Europe, kill millions, spread like crazy. It even sounds scary: “You have…the plague.” Yeah, this is a weapon to use. And I’m sure that there are terrorists who are giddy about the idea. But let’s think about threat vectors once again.

How did the plague spread through Europe, wiping out a third of the population in the 1300s? Through rats. Rats with fleas on them. The fleas carry the plague, and when they burrow into human flesh, they deposit the plague. Bubonic plague cannot spread through airborne means. A small percentage would develop pneumonic plague, which can be spread through respiratory droplets.

So we have two channels of attack:
Bubonic plague – Plague-infected fleas, carried by animals such as rats, spreading the disease to humans. This can not be transmitted between humans.
Pneumonic plague – Breathing in plague bacteria which have been suspended in respiratory droplets. This can be transmitted between humans.

So, for the bubonic plague aspect, the terrorist attack would be to release a bunch of plague-filled rats and have them do their work, whereas for pneumonic plague, the aerosol route is by far the most tempting. Now, what are the issues? With bubonic plague, the issue of transmittal is that it already exists. There are animals in the United States which have plague-infected fleas on them. These animals can get people sick. As for pneumonic plague, it might be possible, though there will be the technical issues of keeping the nozzle of an aerosol attack clean. Furthermore, the plague bacteria has a natural enemy: sunlight. Do it during a sunny day and the bacteria die very quickly. The CDC site states that bacteria will survive up to one hour. This does not make for a very good threat. In addition, there would be the fact that you would still want to manufacture a potent version, which brings us back to the old problem of R&D funding and scientists who know what they’re doing. This makes the threat potency kind of murky.

But on top of this, there is a huge, huge problem for terrorists who want to attack the US in such a way: there are measures in place to handle plague instances. Roughly 5-15 cases occur in the United States each year, and most rural areas have health departments which keep an eye on and handle any breakouts of plague cases. Furthermore, the plague can be treated with antibiotics, so even in the terrorist nightmare scenario—tens of thousands of people getting infected by aerosol-based plague-carrying droplets—it is very likely that only a few people would die. Again, this is hundreds of millions to billions of dollars in research, development, training, testing, planning, and carrying out a plan versus a couple of deaths. So we can wipe out either form of the plague as a serious threat.

Rabbit Fever

Rabbit fever, otherwise known as tularemia, is a bacterial disease found in rodents, rabbits, and hares. The primary infection method is through ticks or fleas which carry the disease, or by handling diseased animals. Roughly 200 cases occur in humans each year in the US. The terrorist preferred method would be to use it as an airborne bacteria to attempt to spread it. It is easy to get rabbit fever in terms of the number of bacteria which would need to be ingested, though it cannot be passed on from human to human.

As I said, aerosol techniques would potentially work…but, as the CDC points out, “manufacturing an effective aerosol weapon would require considerable sophistication.” So again, we’re talking big lab, smart guys in white coats, and lots of funding. This is an immediate strike against. But the death blow against rabbit fever is that it’s extremely easy to treat. Infect thousands of people and chances are that the returns will be even lower than for the plague. So rabbit fever is out as a legitimate terrorist option, as the costs would far outweigh the benefits.

Viruses

The first time I thought seriously about bioterrorism was due to one of Tom Clancy’s novels. In this book (and forgive me if I mess up the plot any; it has been roughly 6 or 7 years since I’ve read the book), a state-sponsored terrorist organization harvests monkey kidneys infected with Ebola. They then find a way to put this into aerosol form and attack several major US sites simultaneously. So this category is of particular interest to me, especially because viruses cannot be treated with antibiotics, which makes them potentially more dangerous than bacteria such as anthrax, rabbit fever, or botulism. So let’s dive right into it.

The particular category of viruses that the CDC classifies as Category A is Viral Hemorraghic Fevers. Probably the most dangerous ones for our purposes are Ebola, Marburg, Lassa, and Crimean-Congo, due to the fact that they can spread from person to person and do not have vaccines in place to prevent (such as yellow fever). These could conceivably be put into aerosol form and used in an attack.

But again, we have the same problems with aerosols as before. The equipment, facilities, research, and scientist training costs are very, very expensive. The costs for these viruses would probably be even greater than for the bacteria, due to the fact that it is extremely difficult to breed these viruses. Take a look at the known cases for Marburg and Ebola and notice something: just how few outbreaks there are. For Marburg, there are just six known outbreaks, with one of them occurring in laboratory situations. As for Ebola, there are 23 listed cases. You can also scratch off 8 of those as not really outbreaks. One case was accidental infection, one was a person who was treating an outbreak, and 6 were introductions into quarantine facilities. So we have 20 outbreaks of these two viruses in a period of roughly 40 years. This might be an indication of how difficult it is to develop Ebola, as it would seem that relatively few animals carry the diseases. So that is problem one. Problem two is that it is difficult to spread these viruses. Note, again, the descriptions on the CDC site for Marburg and Ebola. I will break out the major cause of spread in the 20 outbreaks and note which ones are serious in a situation like the United States by bolding them.

Marburg
- Infection spreading to nurse and companion

- Doctor attempts resuscitation
- Working at a gold mine, and village-to-village spread; my conjecture is that a sick person continued working and contaminated others for each.

Ebola
- Close personal contact with the infected
- Using contaminated needles
- Infected chimpanzee eaten for food, and family members of those who ate the monkey
- Attending funerals of disease-infected individuals
- Providing medical care without appropriate personal measures

So as we can see, some of these reasons could happen in the US, but others are outlandish and are indicative of the terrible medical quality in Africa. It also forces me to ask this question: how well could these viruses spread without the assistance of poor medical care? In a country like the US, hospitals will not use contaminated needles, the bodies of Ebola victims would be burned, doctors take appropriate measures to avoid infection (and would be even more vigilant if an outbreak were known), and the chance of eating Ebola-infected monkeys is rather low. Really, the only threat is that of spreading the disease during the post-incubation period but before becoming sick enough to go to the hospital. So, similar to smallpox, we would probably see a fair percentage of first-generation death (though nothing like the 90% that those African cases showed, and probably closer to 33% of those who actually develop the diseases in a regime of good health care, as one finds in the West) and a few stragglers in the second and third generations. I would imagine that an epidemic would quickly fizzle once it became known that there was an outbreak of Ebola or Marburg or something similar, as people would then take appropriate precautions.

There is one additional reason which Professor Bhakdi uses to argue that viruses are not a legitimate threat: an infectious disease like Ebola or Marburg is, well, infectious. Your everyday Joe Terrorist has neither the equipment nor the expertise to handle Ebola-infected animals and is likely to infect himself on accident. The thought of this would likely turn potential users off from viruses and over to something safer. After all, even those who want to become martyrs have an idea of what happens when you get infected, and they would likely have hospital conditions at least as bad as those in Africa, so in fact, it is more likely that terrorists would infect their local population (due to terrible hospital standards) rather than infect Americans.

So here is the breakdown, just like last time:
Risk – Very Low. None of these is likely to be used in an attack, and the ones which might be used have easy cures. The viruses which have no cure are also extremely unlikely to be used, due in part to the fact that the terrorists have a better chance of infecting themselves than any Westerner.
Retaliation Against Foreign Government Factor – Low to Medium. These attacks would require considerable resources, which implies likely state funding. If an attack were pulled off and could be traced back to a government, the American response could be a nuclear retaliation and would likely involve deposing the government. However, none of these really ties to a particular government like smallpox does, so it might be possible for a government to fund and direct an attack without being caught.
Likelihood of Failure – Very High. Biological warfare isn’t something for amateurs, and even the scientists who work for terrorist organizations are relatively amateur. Not too many guys at the CDC or Pasteur Institute work for Hezbollah, after all, and even if some did, they still need the equipment, and would need to solve the aerosol problem. Then there is the fact that most of these are treatable, so in the end, the chances of pulling off a major success and killing hundreds approaches zero.
Media Factor – Medium-Low to High (viruses). If the attack is rabbit fever, the media story basically boils down to “Hey, this is kind of like what this farmer over here got on accident. Let’s have 30 stories in which this guy talks about the shots he got over at the local hospital…and then drop it because this is boring.” Botulism would take up a series of tips normally dedicated to salmonella. Bubonic plague’s story line would be “Yes, it killed a third of Europe, but now we have hospitals and antibiotics. Hey, did you hear the latest news about Britney Spears?” The only one which would really command attention is the release of a virus, and even that would die out pretty soon, once the first wave ended.

Summary of All Category A Biological Agents

I have gone through each of the Category A biological threats, and each one comes up as wanting. They are far more expensive to produce than you hear in media reports, they pose huge logistical problems, and they more or less don’t work. Taking a look at the MIPT Terrorism Knowledge Database, let’s note how many biological attacks have been used in various western countries. Taking a look at this link, there are 13 total entries. 9 of them cover the same anthrax attack that I described yesterday. Here are the other four:
- A letter with anthrax is discovered in Venezuela. Nobody becomes infected.
- A letter with a “suspicious powder” is discovered in Brazil. The person opening the letter is treated for an allergic reaction, meaning that this was not anthrax. No other results.
- A letter with anthrax is sent to a newspaper in Pakistan. This tests positive for anthrax. No infections.
- A man is assassinated with a toxin in Kashmir. This would not have been a Category A attack, and thus is basically as dangerous as shooting the man.

So in the 38 years since terrorism has taken off as a major affair, we’ve had 3 real biological attacks, and one thing which seems like a hoax that just accidentally caused an allergic reaction. The end result is that 5 people died. In short, if biological weapons were as potent, deadly, and inexpensive as media reports suggest, you would think that more people would have used them by now. My goal in this three-part series was to describe the most dangerous forms of bioterrorism and how much of a threat they are. In the end, I do not see them as a viable threat for terrorists. Now, this does not mean that absolutely no resources should be used in regard to these diseases, or that you should walk around opening up powder-laced packages, but it does mean that people should not really fear that such things would be used in a terrorist attack, as it is far too impractical.

November 22, 2006

So How About Anthrax?

Filed under: Science!, Terrorism — Kevin Feasel @ 3:32 pm

In my last post, I detailed how a potential smallpox attack could look like and its likely results. In the end, I said that it would appear that smallpox is not a major threat for America or the rest of the West. Today, I would like to take a look at anthrax.

Anthrax also appears as a Category A bioterrorism agent on the CDC website. Anthrax comes from spore-forming bacteria. There are three threat vectors for anthrax:
- Ingestion of spores into gastro-intestinal system
- Inhaling spores
- Spores entering through the skin (and particularly open wounds)

There is an extremely important note here: “Anthrax is not known to spread from one person to another.” This means that all exponential growth models get thrown out the window and the attack is a one-shot try. So unlike smallpox, an anthrax attack has to hit a big audience, because there won’t be any future waves.

Anthrax requires between 7 and 42 days of incubation before the symptoms appear. Again, like smallpox, this means that an attack would have to happen after the fact.

Now, how about treatment of anthrax? According to an article by Dr. Sucharit Bhakdi at the Institute of Medical Microbiology and Hygiene at the University of Mainz (no link available, as this was a presentation), cutaneous anthrax can be easily treated and would be no problem. In addition, it is also the least likely to result in death, with or without treatment. Inhalation anthrax is the most serious of the three, but there is a very low likelihood that the spores could get through the body’s nose and throat defenses, so even if someone does inhale the spores, there is a very low chance of any individual spore getting through into the lungs. Thus, an attack would have to take place in a rather concentrated area, which makes an outdoor attack impractical. Also, a human must inhale a large number of spores. The military estimate is 8000-50,000 spores. And according to the CDC report, all three types can be treated either before or after onset of symptoms through antibiotics, though with differing rates of success. Unfortunately, lung anthrax is still a very deadly threat.

One other thing that Professor Bhakdi notes is that, for an attack to be effective, the perpetrator would need to use weapons-grade anthrax. This was found in Iraq but subsequently destroyed in the ’90s. Other countries are likely to possess the product, and some might give it to terrorist groups. Unlike the case of North Korea, there is no single country which would seem most likely to spread the bacteria. So for a commissioned, professional attack, we could potentially see weapons-grade anthrax, but there is still a fair likelihood of non-weapons-grade being used.

So, given that the spore concentration would have to be rather high to infect people, the best points of attack would, once again, be something like a convention center, where air circulation would spread the spores around but would still leave them concentrated enough to potentially infect at a decent rate. A subway system could also work, given that they are underground and do not have good ventilation.

This time, instead of going through a potential attack scenario, we can take a look at the anthrax attack from 2001. This series of attacks took place, as tracked by the MIPT Terrorism Knowledge Database, took place between October 2 and November 4, 2001. During this series of incidents, 5 people died. No group ever took responsibility for the attacks, and one of the things Professor Bhakdi points out is that the attacks did not use weapons-grade anthrax, meaning it is unlikely that this was a planned activity pulled off by a known terrorist group. I have provided a peared down list of entries, as some of them are duplicates.
http://www.tkb.org/Incident.jsp?incID=11985
http://www.tkb.org/Incident.jsp?incID=11976
http://www.tkb.org/Incident.jsp?incID=11977
http://www.tkb.org/Incident.jsp?incID=11986
http://www.tkb.org/Incident.jsp?incID=11975
http://www.tkb.org/Incident.jsp?incID=11978

http://www.tkb.org/Incident.jsp?incID=11984

The bottom incident, 11984, is the big one, but I count in total 5 fatalities and 38 non-fatal cases. All five fatalities were due to inhalation anthrax, including one case of a 94-year-old woman. Now, 5 deaths and 38 non-fatal cases are nothing to sneer at, but think about it this way: if you want anthrax to spread over a large area, mailrooms are basically the only available method. The envelopes were laced with anthrax powder and potentially contaminated millions of other parcels and letters, as anthrax spores were found on the sorting equipment of these mailrooms. On top of this, depending upon the number of letters, we’re talking about thousands of people who should have been in the contamination zone. There were letters which went to the New York Post, NBC, and the Senate’s Hart building. Adding to that the final destinations of all of the letters which were cross-contaminated and a worst case scenario would be in the hundreds to thousands of fatalities and tens of thousands of cases. Yet we saw nothing of the sort. What we did see was 2 people who contracted anthrax under mysterious circumstances (which may or may not have been related to the attacks and subsequent cross-contamination), 3 people who died as a result of opening or being around opened mail which contained the anthrax spores, and 38 people who were in contact with the anthrax and contracted the disease. And then there were the thousands of people who were also in the area and did not get the disease, as well as millions of people who would have potentially had a few dozen spores get caught in their nasal passages or brushed off their skin to float away harmlessly.

When people go on the air talking about how a 5-pound bag of anthrax could wipe out Washington DC, it dramatizes the threat. It also begs three very important questions:
1) How do people go about getting that much anthrax?
2) How can they get it in a form which is available to be used as a weapon?
3) How can they make it so that humans inhale enough of the spores to become infected?

This link, although I strongly disagree with pretty much any political statement the guy says, gives a sound set of responses to my questions.
1) They can’t. The creation of enough anthrax to be an effective bioterror weapon would require hundreds of millions to billions of dollars in expensive equipment.
2)  They can’t. Liquid anthrax—which is what Iraq had—is useless, as the only threat vector for that would be if somebody drank the liquid. Powdered anthrax would require massive amounts of equipment and skilled researchers to pull off. After this, there would need to be a means to disseminate the bacteria. Sprayers will not work because the bacteria would clump and clog up the sprayer. So the primary attack vector has been nullified right there. And even if an attack can be pulled off (through, say, a crop duster spraying this in powdered form), because the spores fall to the ground—where they will not be able to get into your lungs in any appreciable amount—so quickly, this attack would still have to be concentrated in a small area while people are around for there to be any effect.
3)  Good luck with that…  Outside of forcing people to breathe it in, there is no viable mechanism for major catastrophe.

One final thing I should mention is that the Japanese death cult Aum had tried to use anthrax.  They gave up on it because, despite their massive resources and major scientific know-how, they still couldn’t kill people.

Thus, here is my end summary.
Risk – Very Low.  Outside of stealing anthrax from a US or Russian lab (which might have been how our anthrax attacker got his doses), the resources necessary to create enough are overwhelming, especially for the return.
Retaliation Against Foreign Government Factor – Low.  It would be tough to pin this back to a single nation.  This might make anthrax more compelling for terrorists who are state-supported or state-controlled.
Likelihood of Failure – Very High.  Any mist-based attack will fail automatically.  The Iraqi liquid warhead idea was a dud.  Dusting would fail.  The only method which has any realistic chance of success, other than force-feeding people anthrax, was a plan like the mail plan.  And even there, the damage done was far below what we were led to believe would happen.
Media Factor – Low or Very High.  Maybe it’s because the attack came so soon after 9-11, maybe because it was focused on media and government centers, maybe because it is a CBNR attack, but the last anthrax attack caused a huge media uproar.  Another mail-based attack would cause a similar amount of reporting.  However, a failed attack (which would be much, much more likely) would be glossed over.
Symbolic Factor – Low.  There was some symbolism in attacking the mail system—making it so that you can’t trust the government.  There was also symbolism in sending these letters to media and government facilities.  But there is little threat of hitting large gatherings and zero chance of destroying memorials and cultural icons.

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